Experiential Learning in Interdisciplinary Studies 400f

The City of Abbotsford, the local municipal government for UFV’s main campus and Clearbrook campus, identified a problem.

That problem is neither new nor unique to Abbotsford: people mostly don’t care about municipal governance.

As hard as municipal governments may try to engage their populations, as many channels as they may have to communicate with their residents, as many opportunities as they may provide, local governments tend to hear frequently from a small group of very engaged citizens and then from almost nobody else.

However, the City wants to change that. They put a tremendous amount of effort into engaging around the Abbotsforward project and again for their Plan for 200k initiative. Still, despite receiving input from thousands of people, the City wants to do better.

Enter CityStudio, a group that has been working with the City of Vancouver and post-secondary learning institutions in Vancouver to advance innovative projects at the local level. CityStudio looks to connect municipal staff with universities, faculty, and their students to open new opportunities to explore problems and how they might be solved outside of the confines of city halls.

The City expressed a number of challenges to CityStudio, including their problem about civic participation and engagement in municipal governance.

When the University of the Fraser Valley started to get involved, two faculty members—Hamish Telford from Political Science and myself from the Communications department—came together to build a new Interdisciplinary Studies 400 course: IDS 400f Civic Engagement & Participation.

The goal of this course is simple: bring together a small class of committed students to investigate the City’s problem and propose potential solutions for future implementation. While the goal is simple, the problem also presents an enormous challenge and a very unique learning opportunity for students.

In this course, students will need to consult with City staff and the Mayor about the challenge being faced and they’ll need to research what has been tried elsewhere in the past, even of those experiments with public engagement were failures. They’ll need to go and perform original primary research to speak with the marginally engaged population to find out what might motivate them to be more engaged and to participate more in the public policy development processes that the City offers for citizen feedback.

IDS 400f is a different kind of course. Student led and project-based, this course gives students the unique opportunity to explore communications and politics outside of a traditional disciplinary framework and to solve a real-world problem through hands-on research and interactions.

If all goes as planned, the students will bring new perspectives and input into a problem that has plagued many. They will learn about the challenges that are faced when planning how to overcome meaningful problems that have stumped expert practitioners. The richness of the experiential learning will transcend the traditional classroom experience or even traditional academic research because of its time sensitivity and client-focused approach.

The learning students achieve in this class will be a talking point if they apply for graduate programs or future research or teaching assistantships. This is going to be a unique learning opportunity that forms their understanding of what can be achieved through research, project-based learning, and experiential learning for years and maybe even decades to come.

On that basis alone, I am a strong believer that UFV’s students and faculty should push for more such learning opportunities that connect to community stakeholders, that are project-driven, that are interdisciplinary, and offer opportunities for primary research. Such courses foster creativity and innovation and they serve as an excellent primer for students looking at graduate level research in their future. They represent an excellent capstone to the undergraduate learning experience.

Will the efforts of IDS 400f students solve the City’s problem?

I don’t know. But the process is exciting and the learning will be enriching at the highest level.

The opportunity to learn, connect, and grow is incredible.

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